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A conference attendee examines the BlackBerry PlayBook during its launch in Mumbai June 22, 2011. (© Danish Siddiqui / Reuters/Danish Siddiqui / Reuters)
A conference attendee examines the BlackBerry PlayBook during its launch in Mumbai June 22, 2011. (© Danish Siddiqui / Reuters/Danish Siddiqui / Reuters)

The ultimate cheap tablet buyer's guide Add to ...

An app developer friend of mine told me recently that there really is no such thing as a tablet market. There’s an iPad market, and then there’s an everything else market.

In a sense, that reality makes reviewing tablets pretty easy: If you want a tablet, and you have enough cash to buy an iPad, do so. It’s far and away the best gadget of its kind out there, now and for the foreseeable future.

But if you don’t have the $600 or so necessary to pick up a new iPad, you may find yourself forced to wander into the rancid swamp of second-, third- or possibly fifteenth-tier tablets. Many of these devices, you’ll soon find, come with their own little quirks, and by “little quirks” we mean “horrible, device-crippling malfunctions.” So as a public service, we’ve listed and graded some of the best and most popular cheap tablets on the market today.

An important caveat: these grades are based primarily on value for money. As such, a cheaper tablet that may not have as much functionality as a more expensive unit may still end up with a better grade. Conversely, if the Kindle Fire or Kobo Vox were priced at $600, they would get big fat Fs.

E-readers On Steroids

Device: Kindle Fire

Maker: Amazon

Vital specs: 7-inch screen, 1-gigahertz processor, 512 megabytes of RAM

Price: $200 (Only available in the U.S. so far)

Grade: B

There’s evidence to suggest that the most significant indicator of how well you’ll do in life is your choice of parents. In that respect, the Kindle Fire has hit the jackpot.

Our full Kindle Fire review can be found here.

The short version is this: for $200, you get a perfectly adequate tablet running on a modified version of Google’s Android operating system. The user interface is clean and intuitive. The Web browser is a bit of a letdown. Most annoyingly, the device feels a bit too heavy, but that’s probably not a deal-breaker.

But because the Kindle Fire is an Amazon device, it’s going to sell like hotcakes. For one thing, Amazon is going to push it through its online store, where the Fire is already probably the best-selling new item in stock. And because a lot of people already get their books, music and who knows what else from Amazon, the Fire is going to be a logical fit. If you’re one of those people, or you plan to use your tablet mostly for buying and reading books, the Fire is probably the way to go. If you’re looking for a good Web browser or video-playing capability, look elsewhere.

Device: Vox

Maker: Kobo

Vital specs: 7-inch screen, 800-megahertz processor, 512 megabytes of RAM

Price: $200

Grade: F (Last week), C+ (This Week), ?? (Next Week)

Ubiquitous automatic software updates are the best and worst thing to happen to the technology industry in the past few years. On one hand, it’s great when you find a bug in the software you’ve purchased, and the company you purchased it from can fix their mistake quickly, without forcing you to go through customer support hell.

But on the other hand, too many manufacturers are using wireless software updates a some kind of Get Out Of Jail Free card, allowing them to rush out shoddy, badly tested products to market, and then say, “Yeah, we know we accidentally mapped the spacebar to the “Format hard drive” function, but we can fix that later with a software update!”

This phenomenon is particularly acute in the tablet world, where every company not named Apple has scrambled to get competing devices to the marketplace as early as humanly possible (See: BlackBerry PlayBook), even if they still had major, major bugs. This basically meant that, if you were an early adopter, you were getting slapped in the face, more so than usual.

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